Your Exis(test)ial GMAT Questions Answered

Summer is often the season for standardized test re-takes. With work and school typically in remission, grad school applicants use the summer to study anew for a second–or third…dare I say fourth?–crack at hitting their target score.

This summer was no exception, as many of our clients streamed in to ask our help in diagnosing what went wrong on Test Day the first time. More importantly, what can be done next time to improve things.

In roughly half the cases, we've found that the applicant does have legitimate reasons for retaking the test. For these applicants, their GMAT/GRE score is so far below the average for their target schools, that it makes sense to take another trip up to the plate. In their case, the specter of adcoms looking unfavorably at their application due to having taken the test multiple times (a legitimate concern for some) is offset by the potential for a MUCH higher score than they currently own.

Here's an example: Helen is targeting Tier B Business Schools (ranked No. 15-30). Schools like USC (Marshall), Texas (McCombs) and Boston University are in her crosshairs. Helen's application is solid, with numbers and qualitative factors that are right within the range of accepted applicants for these schools. Except for her GMAT. Her first effort yielded a 590, 80 points below the 670 average for Tier-B B-Schools. Does it pay for her to retake it?

Yes. In this instance, 80 points off the average, absent anything remarkable about her application, means a second try is worth the stretch. Coming in that far below the average could make the difference for the adcoms and that's not a chance Helen wants to take, assuming she's serious about the application process.

Which is not to say she has absolutely no shot with a 590. Remember, each year both Stanford and Harvard Business Schools–perennial one-two's in the annual rankings–admit applicants, albeit very few, with GMAT scores in the 500's. That's 200+ points off their average!

So it does happen. But do you want to tip your hand and push all your chips into the pot on a longshot? For most, that answer is no.

But let's take Helen's example a step further. Let's suppose that 590 is now a 620. How does that affect her decision on whether to retake the exam?

To answer that, and to resolve the issue once and for all, we ask, “To retake, or not to retake?” that is the question…

First thing's first. GMAT/GRE scores are not viewed in the same way by admissions committees as they are by you–the applicant. To an applicant, a 620 is a good score, a 630 is a better score and a 610 is an inferior score. To the adcoms, all three are essentially the same.

Some explanation is required here. You see, to adcoms, they think–and evaluate applicants–in terms of score ranges, not actual scores. In other words, what you see as a 620, they view as a 600-640. Essentially, you get the same “amount of points,” if you will, for any score that falls within that range.

Perhaps a table will help illustrate their evaluative method better and, in turn, help us answer our Hamlet-esque exisTESTial query:

GMAT Range On 30-Pt. Scale

GMAT Score Range
↓500
500-540
550-590
600-640
650-690
700+
Points Awarded51015202530

The table above assumes, safely, that the GMAT accounts for about 1/3 of your admissions decision. Therefore, on a 100-point scale, roughly 30 of those points are awarded based on your GMAT score. How do you earn those 30 points? Well, It depends on what score range you fall in.

Take for instance a 620. This applicant would earn 20 of the 30 available points for their GMAT score. (Aside: It's worth noting here that anyone within the 600-640 range would earn those 20 points. Get the picture? Retaking the GMAT to try and turn a 610 into a 640 is a fruitless endeavor in the eyes of the adcom, social bragging rights notwithstanding.)

Still, the example above begs the question: How do I decide if I should retake the exam?

The answer is simple: If you feel reasonably confident that a 50-point increase, at minimum, is realistic, then retake it. That should make sense, right? A 50-point increase leapfrogs you into the next scoring range and hence awards your application more points. Any increase short of that is strictly academic, yes? So a 640 may sound better than a 600 to your friends at your next social mixer, but to the adcoms, the difference is as meaningless as that between a 3.61 and 3.68 GPA.

So be practical. The GMAT is no joke and requires a major time commitment. If your subpar score the first time around accurately reflected your abilities and best effort, and B-School is an absolute MUST for you, consider applying to less competitive programs–not Harvard or Stanford–that won't require you to retake the test. After all, there are plenty of strong schools whose names don't end in “erd”.

Incidentally, the same logic applies to grad school and GRE scores. Think of the GRE range in terms of five point increments instead of the 40 for the GMAT.

Ex: A 151 on the quant or verbal should not be tinkered with unless you feel there is adequate reason for you to believe you can hit a 156 or better next time.

Which brings up our last issue: How can you accurately evaluate your potential for improvement?

Here's a surefire quiz you can take to determine whether or not your last effort was indeed your best effort, or if you ought to hit the batting cages again for one last crack at the plate (forgive the baseball references, it was MLB All-Star weekend as this post was written; anyway, back to the game…).

Should I Retake My GMAT/GRE? Quiz:

  1. Did anything go wrong on the test the first time? Examples include not getting enough sleep, taking the test hung over (you'd be surprised), misjudging the time remaining, feeling under the weather, arriving late to the test site, or any other external factor that impacted your performance in some consequential way. Be honest with yourself here.
  2. Did you feel at all unprepared? Did you take a professional test prep course or get one-on-one tutoring that you felt adequately prepared you? Did you study at least 80 total hours?
  3. Were there any major life events that occurred during your prep months?
  4. Do you believe, in your heart of hearts, given the nature of the test, that your low score was one of the those fluke days where everything went wrong?
  5. Did the questions on the test feel easy?
  6. Did you get a 690 and just want to join the elite 700 club? Or 590 and 600? Are you trying to hit a threshold number just because you believe that is the magic number for your target school? This is NOT a good reason.

If you answered yes to any of the first five questions, then you, my friend, have a good reason to retake the test. Quick note about No. 5: If the test felt easy and your score sucked, then there is a good chance you were just rushing through the exam; with a little work on pacing, you can drastically increase your score.

Next week, we will review how all the other factors–GPA, LOR, resume, application essays–are evaluated using the same point system we described in the table above.

If you have any questions about this, or previous posts, please contact us here.

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